News of the Dutch Churches

The most recent news from the Dutch church scene to make the headlines in the larger news media concerns Pope Paul’s appointment of chaplain Dr. Simonis as the new Roman Catholic bishop of the diocese of Rotterdam. Dr. Simonis is known to be a conservative. The rest of the Roman Catholic leadership in Holland has the name of being anything but conservative. Trouble concerning this recent papal appointment was therefore inevitable. Such trouble did indeed arise.

From reports received, not just the Roman Catholic segment of the Dutch population but the entire people of Holland, whether unchurched, Protestant or Catholic, could be divided into a pro-Simonis and anti-Simonis faction. This points lip a feature which tends to be overlooked by foreign observers of Dutch church life. In a small, densely populated country like The Netherlands, church concerns easily develop into national concerns. It was not surprising, therefore, that most of the leading opinion weeklies in The Netherlands, in the week after the papal decision, commented on the merits of Dr. Simonis’ elevation to the rank of a bishop. There was also a flood of letters to the editors of various newspapers, many of which, surprisingly enough, were in favor of the new appointment.

A Firm Pope Makes Bishops Yield

Two of the Dutch bishops made a hurried journey to Rome to see if the Pope could not be dissuaded from his decision. But the Pope stood firm, his decision was declared definitive. In view of this papal firmness the bishops yielded, in much the same way as they had yielded earlier on the issue of prescribed celibacy for the clergy. Apparently the old adage “Rome has spoken, the matter is finished,” still continues to have much applicability to Roman Catholic church life, even among some of its most rebellious sons.

In the meantime the bishops of The Netherlands have issued a declaration in which they state their acceptance of their new colleague and promise open and sincere cooperation. What this recent development will mean for the development of Dutch Roman Catholicism cannot be stated with any degree of certainty. Conservative, traditional Roman Catholicism, while it continues to be beset by some of the major errors which the Reformation alleged against it, also contains elements which represent Biblical emphases.

It may even be maintained that there are some emphases in the traditional Roman Catholic position, such as the doctrine of God and of Christ, of revelation and of Scripture (though the latter is vitiated by the tradition-approach) which make orthodox Protestants stand closer to that position than to that of liberal Protestantism. At the same time, recent liberalizing trends in the church of Home, though to be applauded in some respects, have also brought about a serious weakening of some genuinely Biblical elements in Roman Catholic doctrine.

It will be a matter of great interest to all who have have the genuine well-being of all of God’s people at heart to see how the recent episcopal appointment will affect the life of Dutch Roman Catholics and that of others outside the Dutch borders.

“Not condemned”: Kuitert

In the meantime the discussion in the Gereformeerde Kerken centering in the so-called “new theology” continues unabated. A January issue of the Friesch Dagblad contains a lengthy interview with Professor H. M. Kuitert, the controversial systematics professor at the Free University. As was reported in an earlier issue of this journal, the Dutch synod declared that Dr. Kuitert’s denial of the historicity of the fall into sin as man’s turning away from God at the beginning of human history was not in accord with the decision of 1967-1968. For all who can read, this declaration appears to be an outright condemnation of Professor Kuitert’s position. However, Professor Kuitert himself does not think so.

In answer to a question posed in the interview, Dr. Kuitert remarked: “I do not feel condemned in one single respect by Synod. The previous Synod (Amsterdam 1967) made a pronouncement concerning the beginning of human history. Assen 1926 was repealed. But that Synod did not state that one must hold Adam to be a historical person and that the history of mankind literally began in paradise. The previous synod did not say this and people were aware of this, certainly at that time.”

This, at least, is clear and unambiguous language. Kuitert then continues to offer his version of what the Amsterdam Synod actually did or did not say concerning the historicity of the fall. He says that to hold that the 1967 Synod maintained this historicity was an opinion held by members of the most recent Synod (of Sneek-Lunteren) but “that is not the only possible explanation of 1967.” He then refers to the fact that two of his Amsterdam colleagues, Vanden Berg and Mulder, had a hand in drawing up the formulation of 1967 and that they had remarked on the floor of Synod that this formulation had no such intention. “Also for this reason,” says Professor Kuitert, “do I believe that synod did not pronounce a condemnation.”

When asked what he thought of the synodical statement that “at this time” no further measures appeared to be necessary, Dr. Kuitert declared that these words had landed in the final redaction of the resolution, due to the fact that sentences from two different drafts had been combined. But the words “have no deeper significance,” says Kuitert, and they certainly should not be used as a threat.

Differences Apparently Deepseated

In reply to a further question as to what would happen if Synod did indeed condemn him and his opinions, and if therefore efforts will be put forth by the committee to convert him, Kuitert stated: “If that should be the intention of Synod—but I do not believe this—then the whole Free University may as well be closed (‘opgeruimd’). Moreover, then the Synod has to put the knife in its own body, for the committee which reported came with a minority report which was entirely in my vein, and a majority report which contained the present decisions. The same relationship could be observed in the final vote. It was not a unanimous decision.”

Why No Gravamen?

Kuitert then proceeded to make some remarks about the confession. He stated that he wanted to “leave the confession in the midst of the church as a sign of good faith.” And, in the meantime, efforts should be made to keep the dialogue going. He felt that this should be possible in Christ’s church. There was no need for him to present a gravamen for he did not want to remove the confession or attack it in its kernel. Kuitert urged that there should be continued discussion, and that care should be taken not to get a “doctrinal issue.” Hence no gravamen. For by these doctrinal issues, said Kuitert, we do not get anywhere. We only bury the problems under a mountain of formalism. The application of discipline over doctrinal aberration usually results in the fragmentation of the church. Synod knows that too. For it has declared that there is need for a new confession. In other words: “We are searching and we must hold on to each other.” One thing especially we should not do: choke the dialogue in formal obligations.

Good Intentions

In an earlier part of this revealing interview, Kuitert sought to make plain that he did not desire to rob anyone of his faith. His concern was rather to bring to the surface that which is the very core of that faith. I do not have the feeling, thus the professor, of denying the Christian faith. Rather, I am doing just the opposite.

Finding God’s Face in This World

The real problem, thus Kuitert, is whether we today encounter God in our life. People do know that Cod in the past revealed himself in Christ, but they feel the need to see God in their own life, in their existence, in the world of today.

Kuitert believes that many people are disenchanted for not having found God in the experience of public worship. Hence they quit going to church. We should not be too hard on these people, so he says. He himself would want to be counted among those who seek God in the world, in history, in society. People seek God in the conviction that He is also active savingly (Dutch “heilrijk”—rich in salvation) outside the church. Kuitert would want to go and stand next to those people and help them. He asks of the people in Friesland: Let me seek, let me seek after new perspectives, after new possibilities of discovering God. This is such a wonderful challenge. Your children, who will live in quite a different world from our own, will benefit from this search. Foe the real issue is our fellowship with God. We must try to find the face of God back in this world.

Another part of the interview deals with questions of eschatology, the return of Christ, the new earth, death, angels, devils, and so forth. It also deals with the question of the origin of sin. Kuitert states that he believes that sin’s origin is not with God. At the same time he deems it wise not to be preoccupied with this question too much. Far better it is to confess one’s guilt. We are too much preoccupied with the past, with Adam. The essence of the gospel, God’s action in these times, that is the issue.

Rearguard Fight?

Kuitert believes it is we1l to observe that the issue of Adam has virtually ceased to be an issue in the world church. Then he continues: “In almost all churches outside of The Netherlands—leaving the sects out of consideration—the assumption is that Adam did not exist as a person at the beginning of creation. In other countries this battle has already been fought, while we in the Reformed Churches are still busy with it.”

Incomprehensible Statement

Much more could be cited from this frank and in many ways startling interview. It is the first written statement by Professor Kuitert which has come to the writer’s attention since the decision of the Synod of Sneek which, so it clearly appears from the words of the synodical decision, did condemn some of Kuitert’s opinions. To say that this was not Synod’s intention is a most incomprehensible statement. I could understand how someone would argue that the Synod, when appealing to the decision of 1967–1968, was mistaken in its understanding of this decision. Kuitert alleges that it was. But he also does more. He states that he docs not feel condemned by the Synod. However, Synod mentioned his opinions by name and stated that these opinions were not in accord with the earlier decisions. Kuitert states further that, if it had been Synod’s intention to condemn him, then the Free University might as well be closed. In other words, the intention of Synod’s words, so evident for anyone who can read, is flatly denied.

Whatever one may say about the recent decision and about its weaknesses as a pacification formula, a compromise, this one thing cannot be said about it: namely, that it left any doubt about the intention to condemn a position concerning the denial of a historical fall, held by Professor Kuitert and others.

Prior to receiving a copy of the interview above referred to I had prepared some comments gathered from a variety of church periodicals in The Netherlands, all of which reflect on the recent decisions of the Synod of Sneek. Many of the criticisms of the synodical decisions were, so I felt, justi6ed. But since the matter was still in the hands of a committee which was to search for greater unity and since the denial of man’s fall into sin at the beginning of human history had clearly been declared to be out of accord with previous synodical decision, one might argue that a certain time would have to elapse before this matter could be fully settled. The assumption was that the committee would indeed seek to bring Kuitert, and others who believe and teach as he does. to other thoughts in the light of the synodical decision.

But now it appears that Professor Kuitert has an altogether different opinion of what happened last November. Apparently it will now be necessary first of all for Synod or its authorized spokesmen to declare which view of the recent decision is correct. After this has been done, the merits of the synodical decision as such can still be debated. And its execution in terms of the appointed study committee may be followed with great interest.

Growing Tensions

In the meantime one can easily understand that an already tense situation in The Netherlands will grow more tense due to an interview such as this. Already on December 12, during a meeting of the Association of the Concerned held in Rotterdam, a statement was read by the chairman in which the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands were said to have abandoned their Reformed character.

In that same declaration, theological students were urged to continue their studies at schools where theology is taught in submission to the Bible and the creeds. Church councils were urged to resist the decisions of the Synod. Nevertheless, a formal breach within the Gereformeerde Kerken has not been advised as yet.

Needed: A United Orthodoxy

Everyone who deplores the present fragmented existence of the Reformed family of churches can only dread the prospect of further fragmentation. In the magazine Koers, January 2, 1971, a strong plea is made for all orthodox forces to band together as much as possible, and an appeal is issued especially to the leaders in these orthodox circles to join ranks and bury differences wherever possible in order to oppose the common foe. The same magazine urges all writers in church periodicals—and The Netherlands has a legion of these -to stop carrying on endless polemics concerning seemingly subordinate points and conducted in less than brotherly fashion. This appeal appears generally to be well taken, although there are times, as also the writer of the article just cited recognizes, in which issues simply have to be argued to their conclusion.

This much is clear, the situation in The Netherlands churches continues to call for our most urgent prayers and brotherly concern.

Marten H. Woudstra is professor of Old Testament Theology at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.